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Former head of Niagara Falls Housing Authority sentenced for stealing government funds

STAFF REPORTS

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr. announced today that Stephanie W. Cowart, 59, of Grand Island, NY, who was convicted of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, was sentenced to a two year term of probation and a $2,000 fine by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara. In addition, Cowart’s daughter-in-law, Fredia Cowart, 28, of Niagara Falls, NY, was sentenced to one year probation for her conviction on a misdemeanor charge of theft of government funds. Stephanie and Fredia Cowart have also paid full restitution totaling approximately $17,000.  
Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell T. Ippolito, who handled the case, stated that between 1997 and July 21, 2016, Stephanie Cowart served as Executive Director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority (NFHA), an organization that has received federal funding. Between October 2013 and January 2015, Stephanie Cowart, being an agent of a state authority, and being aided by Allen and Fredia Cowart, stole $6,000 from the NFHA.
The Niagara Area Foundation (NAF) was established in 2000 by citizens of Niagara County who were employed in the private and non-profit sectors, to provide support and charity-oriented philanthropic initiatives for residents in Niagara County. Allen and Fredia Cowart, on behalf of People and Possibilities, Inc., sought and obtained a $6,000 grant from NAF, with the assistance of Stephanie Cowart. The money was to be used for “A Better Me,” a project that was to “teach children and youth the importance of proper etiquette, what bullying is and what they can do about it and to teach educational empowerment tools.” The NAF grant proceeds for the “A Better Me” project were deposited directly into the NFHA’s operating account. The NFHA then paid Allen and Fredia Cowart for work purportedly done on the project. However, Allen and Fredia Cowart never actually conducted any presentations related to the “A Better Me” project.
In addition, between October 2013 and June 2014, aided by his mother, Allen Cowart defrauded the NFHA and the New York Office of Children and Family Services (NYOCFS). Allen Cowart falsely claimed that he was performing the work of two teachers under the Advantage After School Program and was paid more than two times the normal hourly pay rate for one teacher position. The Advantage After School Program is funded, in part, through a contribution of federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds to New York State.
Allen Cowart was appointed to the temporary position of Teacher, under the Advantage After School Program, October 1, 2013 for the duration of the school year. The salary associated with this appointment was $23 an hour. However, Stephanie Cowart directed that effective October 23, 2013, her son was to be paid an hourly rate of $50. During the time period that Allen Cowart was paid a $50 hourly pay rate, he received $11,583 more than he would have, had he been paid the $23 hourly pay rate.
Allen Cowart was previously convicted and is scheduled to be sentenced on July 9, 2018.
“In stealing public funds, the defendant put her own interests ahead not only of taxpayers but of the very people she was supposed to be helping,” said U.S. Attorney Kennedy. “Fortunately, not all public servants are similarly motivated, and those who abuse their positions of trust, such as Cowart, can be brought to justice by those who, like our state and federal law enforcement officers who worked this case, faithfully serve the public with honor and integrity.” 
“Public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority because it poses a fundamental threat to the way government and communities operate every day,” said Kevin P. Lyons, Acting Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Buffalo Division. “When Stephanie Cowart used her power as the Executive Director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority to steal money entrusted to her, she failed the people she was hired to serve.”
Today’s sentencings are the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of Acting Special Agent-in-Charge Kevin P. Lyons; the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent-in-Charge Brad Geary; and the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, Division of Investigations.